Short-term Missions: Blessing or Curse (Part 2/2)

planeAnn McClean continues her post on short term-missions.  Check out the first part here.

But what about the local people they have come to serve? The national believers? The local church? Do short-term teams really bless the local context?

In my experience this is probably the area when short-term teams can get it badly wrong. Pre-trip orientation with a mission leader, retired missionary or experienced team leader is essential if short-term missions is to be a blessing to the local believers. However, it has been our experience that, where teams are well prepared and thoughtful in their engagement, a short-term mission trip can be a very precious time of experiencing a small foretaste of heaven as God’s global church comes together across language and cultural divides. The best teams and individuals we have seen would all have the following characteristics:

  • They come to learn.

Short-termers who are humble, eager to learn from local people, hungry to hear what the Lord is doing, willing to think through their own lives and responses to the gospel, asking questions, will find that local people are proud to show them around their city, to teach them how to speak key phrases, to laugh at them as they choke on their first curry! These are the short-term workers who will not only learn much but also be a blessing to those they meet. They will be able to affirm and encourage disillusioned believers struggling to get a bible study group going on their campus. They will be able to speak into the lives of Buddhist students because they have listened first. They will both learn and be allowed the privilege of teaching others the Gospel of Jesus Christ.

 

  • They are flexible and willing to learn new ways of doing things.

When short-termers expect everything to be different, stay alert to cultural sensitivities, keep an eye on how local people dress, eat, speak … then they are delight and joy to host. They quickly develop meaningful relationships with local people because those local people recognize that their own culture and language is valued and appreciated. Those relationships can then become a very real means of blessing as they hear the Gospel, pray and study Scripture together with the short-term worker.

  • They seek the good of local people not their own glory

Sometimes we meet people who have come to serve. The only problem is that they have already decided how, where and when they are going to serve! It doesn’t matter if their service is culturally inappropriate, really not needed or wanted by those in the local context! These people often do more harm than good and can leave a trail of damaged relationships, wasted resources and lost work hours for the missionary to have to unravel once they have left. When teams or individuals ask ‘What can we do to serve you?’, ‘How can we best serve our Thai brothers and sisters?’, ‘What resources would you like us to bring?’ then we know that they will both be blessed and be a blessing to the local church and the student ministry here. Allowing local people to express their needs and desires, not forcing programmes or schedules or resources on them, working to share the Gospel meaningfully in the contexts presented by the local believers is essential for healthy short-term missions work. Working alongside a long ministry or church who can sustain new ministries started by the team and follow-up on individuals who have expressing interest in the Gospel through the outreach organized by the team is vital.

  • They don’t expect to save the world

We once asked a short-term team how many people they thought would become Christians during their one month mission exposure trip with us. The answers varied from 2-100. When we went on to explain that we, as long-term missionaries, fluent in Thai and immersed in the local culture, had only seen four students come to faith in the past year, faces started to drop!

It is vital the short-term workers understand what they are coming to do. They need to recognize the limitation of sharing the Gospel with people who do not speak English. They should have been encouraged to read and pray and think about the world-view of those they will be meeting. What do those people need to know first? Where do missionaries start in sharing the gospel in this context? What does it mean to ‘become a Christian’?

They should also be helped to think (hopefully before they get on the plane!) about why it might actually be unhelpful for them to lead someone to Christ during their trip. Particularly in Asian cultures, Christianity is seen as the ‘Westerner’s religion’. Many of our students are deeply superstitious and would see having a foreigner pray for you as a something akin to a good luck charm. They might also be too afraid of offending that special foreign friend by saying ‘no’ when asked if they want to ‘become a Christian’. For all those reasons, and many more, we actually advise our short-term workers not to pray with students who say they want to become a Christian but rather to hand them over to a Thai speaking believer.

One summer a young short-term worker arrived on a team to teach English and share the Gospel at our university. He sensitively and carefully shared the Gospel with one of his students at the end of a class by drawing ‘Two Ways to Live’ pictures on a paper napkin. He then pointed out Thai Christians and us missionaries  in the room and encouraged the student to talk to us if he had any questions. That student started to meet up with my husband for bible study each week. Six months later he became a Christian in his bedroom as he got out of bed and packed his Buddhist idols into a box. A year later we had the joy of being able to contact that short-term worker and tell him that the student he scribbled cartoon drawings with had been baptized … and still had that napkin!

Short-term workers who arrived with a servant heart and a passion for introducing people to the Creator of the universe, communicating the wonder of the Gospel, demonstrating the power of God to change lives, will have ample opportunities to partner with both missionaries and local believers in evangelism and discipleship which can bear long-term fruit to the glory of God. As they serve they will also be able, alongside their national brothers and sisters, to think more clearly and more deeply than before about what the Gospel is, and what it isn’t! Their own cultural blind spots will be revealed and they in turn will be allowed the privilege of sharpening their new friends in a very different context.

For all these reasons we are committed to continuing to host short-term workers here in Bangkok. We want to continue to ask ourselves, the local church here in Bangkok and those coming to us how we can do short-term missions better. We want to continue to develop partnerships with UK churches who are committed to caring for their short-term missionaries both before and after their trip. We long to see more short-term mission trips translating into meaningful engagement in the global church for those who come, to see more churches meaningfully involving themselves in Global Missions both long and short-term, but ultimately we are convinced that short-term missions has long-term gains for our Thai brothers and sisters, for our family, for those who come and most importantly for the Gospel of Jesus Christ in the nations.

Ann McClean, working with IFES & UFM to reach international students in Bangkok, Thailand

Check out short term options with Local Church Global Mission’s partner organisations here.

Check out the Local Church Global Mission June 7th conference here.